Benton County may ask voters to pass a criminal justice sales tax

Tri-City Herald Staff WriterFebruary 25, 2014 

— Kennewick could add up to 12 more police officers if Benton County voters approve a proposed criminal justice sales tax measure later this year.

But Kennewick residents, along with the rest of Benton County, also would benefit from county-wide gang prevention and intervention programs, if the tax measure passes, Kennewick police Chief Ken Hohenberg told the Kennewick City Council on Tuesday.

The Benton County Law & Justice Council will recommend that Benton County ask voters to approve a 0.3 percent criminal justice sales tax this year, Hohenberg said.

Benton County commissioners are expected to consider the request March 4, he said.

Hohenberg said the Law & Justice group is going to suggest a sunset clause of 10 years for the tax.

The Law & Justice council will be asking for the measure to be considered in the August primary, he said. The group is meeting today.

Franklin County voters approved a 0.3 percent criminal justice sales tax in 2011.

Benton County's proposed criminal justice sales tax could support 15 police officers, Hohenberg said.

"It would cover more than just patrol officers," he said.

Benton County is considering using part of the 60 percent of the revenue that it would receive from the tax for gang prevention and intervention programs, he said.

The cities would split the remaining 40 percent based on population, Hohenberg said.

Kennewick added three police officers last year, bringing the department to 93 officers.

Those additional patrol officers were added so the police department no longer would have to pull from the criminal-apprehension team, which focuses on criminal gang activity, for regular city patrols.

The city paid for the positions by maintaining the city's levy rate in 2013, which increased the revenue the city could collect.

If voters approve the proposed criminal justice sales tax, Kennewick City Manager Marie Mosley said the city will use the property tax dollars to hire three fire captains and some sales tax money for the three police officer positions.

The city's criminal apprehension team handled 466 cases last year, more than twice what it was assigned the previous year. Members made 948 felony arrests, up more than 200 from the previous year. The team's misdemeanor arrests numbered 433, up by more than 40 from the previous year.

The city of Kennewick has 1.22 officers per 1,000 city residents, according to city documents. That rate has been declining since the early 2000s. The city has remained under the state average for at least the past seven years.

The state average was 1.68 officers per 1,000 in 2012, while the city's rate was 1.24.

Hiring five more police officers would bump Kennewick up to 1.28 officers per 1,000 city residents, according to city documents. It would take 25 more officers to get Kennewick to 1.54 officers per 1,000 city residents.

The city's police call volume has increased about 5 percent in the past five years, but the amount of time officers spend investigating has grown 26 percent, Hohenberg said.

The scope and complexity of what officers deal with has grown, especially when it comes to gang activity, he said.

The good news is the overall crime rate has declined in the past ten years, Hohenberg said.

The rate has dramatically declined from 51.2 crimes per 1,000 residents in 2003, to 35.9 crimes per 1,000 residents last year, he said.

During the same time, the city's population grew by 19,000 people to more than 76,000, he said.

"We still live in a very safe community," the chief said.

The true challenge is how to keep it that way, he said.

There were 2 percent more crimes last year than the previous year. The city's population also grew by 2 percent during that same time.

Kennewick had a total of 2,744 crimes reported last year, compared with 2,685 in 2012, according to city documents. The total number of crimes remained fewer than what the city experienced each year between 2003-06 and in 2010 and 2011.

In total, there were 241 violent crimes and 2,504 property-related crimes last year, according to city documents. Kennewick had two homicides, 31 rapes, 43 robberies and 165 aggravated assaults, relatively unchanged from the previous year. The city saw more auto thefts and larceny, but fewer burglaries.

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